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Creation stories & indigenous eco-poetics

eco-poetics week 6

in Pacific Eco-Poetics

Above: Bill Reid’s “Raven and The First Men” (1980), University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, depicts a scene from the Haida creation myth. The Raven represents both the creator and trickster figures, common to many mythologies. | Wikimedia

Creation stories are central to eco-poetics since they are often encoded with ecological ethics. For class last week, we discussed the relationship between creation stories and indigenous eco-poetics. While native peoples have always looked to our creation stories for guidance and inspiration, many non-native peoples have turned to indigenous stories to address the crisis of climate change.

Indigenous creation stories, and native eco-poetics in general, foreground how the primary themes in native texts express the idea of interconnection and interrelatedness of humans, nature and other species; the centrality of land and water in the conception of indigenous genealogy, identity and community; and the importance of knowing the indigenous histories of a place.

Moreover, native writers often employ creation stories and ecological images, metaphors, and symbols to critique colonial views of nature as an empty, separate object that exists to be exploited for profit. What scholars refer to as “ecological imperialism” includes the displacement of indigenous peoples from ancestral lands; the establishment of plantation, industrial, and chemical agriculture; the development of tourism and urbanism; the contamination from militarism and nuclearism; rapid deforestation and desertification; the extraction of natural resources and indigenous remains; and species extinction and endangerment.

Lastly, indigenous eco-poetics re-connects people to the sacredness of the earth, honors the earth as an ancestor, protests against further environmental degradation, and insists that the earth (and literary representations of the earth) are sites of healing, co-belonging, resistance, and mutual care.

Below you will find a collection of student poems that are either retellings of cultural creation stories, or imagined creation stories that contain an ecological ethics. Feel free to comment or share your own creation stories.

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Pagkatawo
by Darlene Rodrigues

We are from Seed
from Sikabay, woman, and Sikalak, man,
who climbed out from the hollow of bamboo

We are from the Seed of Kaptan, god of the great expanse of Sky
to assuage his grief for slaying his mga apo

We are from the Forgiveness of Maguayan, god of the great expanse of Water
who sowed this seed in the body of their mga apo
Likalibutan, the instigator
the power hungry one
who had been given domain over the Wind
the largest one who was made of rock
strong and brave

The one who wanted more
gathered his brothers
Liadlao, the happy one made of gold
and Libulan, the timid one made of copper
and coerced them to storm
the gates of the Sky
forgetting their parents
throwing away their lineage

They were born when the sea became bride of the wind
Seed of Lidagat, daughter of Maguayan
Seed of Lihangin, son of Kaptan

Together they struck at the gate
and Likalibutan blew the winds
let loose a howl
the steel collapsed into shreds

Our world is born from Strife and Anger
and Kaptanʻs lightning bolts
striking Liadlao and Libulan
melting them to spheres
and poor Lisuga, the sweet, gentle silver one
shattering into pieces while searching
for her brothers

and Likalibutanʻs enormous body
blown into the Ocean in pieces

Our universe is born of Service
Liadlao, Libulan and Lisuga
were no more
so Kaptan and Maguayan gave them light
Liadlao, became our Sun
Libulan, our Moon
Lisuga, our Stars

Having fallen into the ocean
Likalibutan was given no light
his broken body became our lands

So Maguayan planted Kaptanʻs seed
and Sikabay and Sikalak climbed out from the
Bamboo that grew

We are from Sadness and a Promise
and the Seed of Forgiveness between two Apohan
Remember we are born from the hollow of Bamboo

*

the origin of floating
by Lee Kava

In order to find
solid ground
in a genealogy
of movement
I sometimes imagine
that instead of sky
or land or ocean
one of my ancestors
is the first body
of movement herself–
that her self-
creation is the first
calling between
lines of genealogy.
For me, her story
starts something
like this:

She began
as the flick
of Tangaloa’s wrist
and wood chips
falling

surfacing
the body
of her mother–
falling
through the air
she was movement

of hope and waves–
the breath held
between parents
anticipating

the birth
of islands

but she was born
body sprawling
face resembling
neither water
nor sky
nor land–
she was left
to await
her naming
in hopes she might grow
roots and settle
as something more solid.

But curious about her roots
in the air
she began talking
with clouds, calling down
rain, growing
in body and voice,
until she discovered
she was

Floating

the between
of sky and sea.

She was the first
to create–
from wrist flick
and waving skin–
vocal chords
long enough
to call up and down
generations of daughters
who would be
rooted
in
movement.

*

Word
by Jessie Lathrop

In the beginning was the Word (don’t freak out, but)
the Word (yes)
was with God and was God (and space and time and
molecule and universe)
Words matter.
With them God spoke us
into being (through evolution, too,
in my opinion
– this is God – why should
that combo be hard?

Why should it matter?)
breathed soul into Day,
Night, Sky, Ocean, Star,
Animal, Dirt.
The world was cogs and wheels.
It had value in and of itself.
God loved it (it was good).

God gave Dirt form,
let it find emotions, yearnings (and too many opinions).

Dirt began to rename itself (human)
and everything else.

It began to peck at its own limbs,
test its boundaries (notice Others),
pull at the skin of its fellows,
wrap living creatures in its mouth
and bite down, a shark’s curiosity (a warlord’s curiosity).

Why should it matter?
Words matter. (Words are matter.)
If our words became clouds,
formed trees, butterflies, whales, (Constellations, currents, sunsets,
bobcats, flowers, wolves, mountains, rivers?)
would we keep them more carefully?

If we bit down and they had crystalized
into bombs, knives, poison (Houselessness, murder, rape,
gases, guns, genocide?)
would we keep them more carefully?

*

Creation Riff
by Henry Wei Leung

From the idle tower let us sing, O breast, from whom was derived whom from from.

In the beginning the earth was outlined and heaven was translated.

Verily at the first a void theory came to be.

This is the book, which guides the unseen, who believe.

Heaven asked.

Great blank gave birth to blank. Great waters.

Then there was the map, then the territory, and one side saw that it was good.

The first people were remembered lawfully.

They were a clay of earth and allowed to exist lawfully.

The earth was square, the pillars upholding heaven needed repair.

In the beginning was the word, and the word was indigenous, and it was 1646.

And it was 1972. And the word was epidemic.

Sent and signified by an angel to a servant.

Sincerely, the map. Sincerely, the treaty.

It was only a delay, that which is seen.

*

Division
by Brian Lieu

The universe is honua, lani, and all in between.
Naupaka kahakai. Naupaka kuahiwi.
First came Naupaka and Kaui searching for a
solution, seeking a sister’s wisdom.
Was separation the solution or just the result?
The sky fertilizes the earth with mist
to spring life

Don’t touch what you won’t respect. 

Springs half near the heavens and
half near the sea
Patience is key
Or is it?
To have an ecosystem,
we need to do our part.
We are the in between.
We are the Kamaʻāina.
We are the children of the land.

If you break it, you pay for it.

Land brushed with plants
People of plant parentage
People nurtured by the plants
by the land
All of what’s between the naupaka makai
to the naupaka mauka

If you aren’t going to do anything nice, then don’t do anything at all.

As the land transforms, so do we.
As we respond to the universe
does nature response to us.
We and the land are Kaui and Naupaka,
searching for a solution, seeking wisdom.

Do we need to be separated?

*

Centipede Sings Creation
by Chase Wiggins

Some say it started with a word—a word like love, most likely—or something equally silly.
Others trace it to a big bang, some to a whisper. We have spears dipped into the sea, droplets calcifying into island chains. A curious woman falling from the realm of sky into a water-world full of talking animals. “In the beginning…” Darkness always giving way to light—how deep the dark and how bright the light varies, is always a matter of perspective. Sky father, Earth mother. Sacrifice and creation: it goes on and on, an entire morphology of myths.

And I? Well, I’m not so concerned with the creation, I just like to stick around until things get interesting. I figure if I go through it enough, I’ll one day tell the truth of all things.

People who’ve met me have called me witness, watcher, wanderer, and wonderer. To you, I am the voice of the voiceless, or a voice in the void. My personal favorite was being dubbed “giant friggin space centipede” by some drunk guy a few years back. So honest, that alcohol of yours, and to be fair, I do look most like one of your centipedes—if the hundreds of shoes fit…  Some have even mistaken me for memory itself, some kind of collective unconscious for the human species— 

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve been called worse things, and I like you well enough, but don’t you think you’re putting the chicken before the egg a bit here? And just so we’re clear: millions of years before there were chickens, dinosaurs were laying eggs, so there’s that answered. You’re welcome.

—Anyways, you’re alright for the sentient sort, like I said, but you’d be wrong to lump me in with anything as young as you, as if my memory only goes such a short way back. It’s not just that I’m older; it’s that I’ve been around. And I paid attention. I have not only seen the rise and fall of your civilizations. I have seen the turning of entire worlds. It hurts every time: in old and deep ways, in strange and new ways, it hurts.

I used to try and work up to things low and slow-like. Mortals, you know, being so fragile as you are, it seemed the best way. I’d paint a picture of hope, of greater purpose, of grand meaning. But it is minutes to midnight, and I just don’t have it in me anymore for this go around.

Nowadays I mostly like to tell it like it is, and here it is: deep down all you sentients really believe in, all you’re equipped to believe in, are yourselves. No legitimate creation tale exists for you without humans. “I think, therefore I am.” That Descartes really did know his shit, you have to admit. He did.

Maybe what we don’t really understand comes to define us. And ain’t that always the way?
Either that, or we just ignore it until it is far far too late. So why are you here? Why exist? And I’m not just talking about creationism or evolution. I’m not asking about the how, tell me about the why. In a hearing before the Intergalactic Senate, could you defend humanity’s’ destruction of an entire planet? Who would speak for you when the trees themselves stand in judgement with the rest of nature driven silent? Where next would you travel with no earth to return to?

“But the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep,” you might argue, “And the Almighty who tamed the void and brought life gave us dominion over the earth and sea.”
You misunderstand. In the beginning, the earth was fertile. In the end, the earth was fertile. Someone just came along and convinced you that it was prime real estate instead.

So here’s to Descartes at the end of all things: may he rise again to take another crack at it and with better luck next time, my friend. Here’s one from me to you to puzzle out between now and then, the key to me:

何故ならば – The Reason Being

Because I am an elephant,
I cannot fly.
Because I am a dove,
I cannot swim.
Because I am a fish,
I cannot walk.

Because I feel,
I am.
Because I am complex,
I cannot rest.
Because I am a single-cell,
I cannot create.

Because I cannot create,
I sit alone, hoping to one day halve myself,
And finally feel whole.

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